State Budget Geared Toward Fighting Opioid Crisis, Higher Education Expenditures

The Massachusetts legislature passed the state’s Fiscal Year 2020 (FY2020) budget this week, coming in at a total of $43.1 billion in funding. Major additions to this year’s budget include additional funding for K-12 education, the state’s higher education system, and substance abuse treatment programs. 

Chief budget negotiators in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate agreed on a budget document late Sunday night, according to The Boston Globe, and both chambers of the state’s government voted in favor of the budget on Monday, according to The Springfield Republican.

Massachusetts is the last state with a fiscal year that begins on July 1 to pass its budget, according to the Globe. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is allowed 10 days to review the budget before signing off on it. The budget includes roughly $317 million in extra expenditures—initially, the House and Senate drafts of the budget were based on tax revenue forecasts that were too conservative—according to the Globe

In addition to those funds, another $300 million is being set aside for the state reserves, $23 million of which will go to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. 

The budget passed the state’s House of Representatives unanimously, and there was just one dissenting vote in the state’s Senate.

“All in all, I wish we would have completed it three weeks ago,” said Massachusetts Senator Michael Rodrigues, the Senate’s chief negotiator on budget related matters, according to the Globe. “It’s a good, fiscally responsible budget.”

The major message the new budget sends is that the state will take funding matters related to its college system as seriously as it takes funding K-12 education, Rodrigues said. 

But, according to the Republican, Rodrigues isn’t discounting the steps taken toward dealing with the opioid crisis.

“It’s really complicated,” he said, per the Republican. “I’m very happy that we landed somewhere in the middle between what the House proposed and what the Senate proposed, and that we will have on the books a law that will provide an opportunity for the secretary of health and human services to engage in real, meaningful discussions with drug manufacturers to save the taxpayers of the commonwealth real money.”

Some key items, supported by Baker’s office, were left off the budget, including language that would have frozen tuition increases at the University of Massachusetts and “new taxes on opioid manufacturers and vaping products,” according to the Globe. Budget negotiators told the Republican that they could not agree to terms relating to additional taxes.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey testified at a state hearing on July 16, asking lawmakers to ban flavored e-cigarettes, as the Baker administration and state officials work to curb the increase in vaping in Massachusetts.

Overall, $150 million is being put toward substance abuse and treatment programs as Massachusetts deals with the nationwide opioid crisis within its own borders. Part of that effort will go toward helping “municipalities and nonprofits pay for the anti-overdose drug naloxone,” according to the Republican.

The state decided to put $10 million toward a loan forgiveness program for people working in behavioral health and a public awareness campaign to combat the stigma around mental illness.

The Republican reported that UMass officials informed the outlet that tuition and fees for the university will probably be raised by 2.5 percent. Currently, the in-state tuition is $16,278, while out-of-state students pay $35,599. Estimated cost of living is $29,876 per year for in-state students and $49,197. 

The state is increasing funding by $39 million to a total of $558 million for FY2020.

Lawmakers seem skeptical of UMass’s need to increase tuition: Language in the budget requires officials to meet with Massachusetts’ congress to present the details on UMass’s spending, according to the Globe

The issue of tuition costs at public colleges has also broadened into nationwide political discussion over the past decade or so relating to the student-loan debt crisis that has led Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, both candidates in the 2020 presidential race, to propose both free tuition at public universities and massive loan forgiveness programs.

The Republican asked a UMass spokesman for an on-the-record comment on whether the University will raise tuition and fees for the 2019-20 academic year, but the spokesman declined to commit to any plans and noted that UMass’s board of trustees will make a decision on cost of attendance at its next meeting. 

The board postponed voting on cost of attendance increases until after the state budget was approved, according to the State House News Service’s Katie Lannan. UMass officials said a tuition freeze would lead to cuts to programs across campus, Lannan reported, but they did note that an extra $10 million would cover a freeze. Such an increase was not on the table during budget negotiations, according to Lannan’s reporting.

The Republican also noted that a provision by Baker’s office to require large online marketplaces to collect a state sales tax was included in the FY2020 budget. 

Featured Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

July 29, 2019

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